Cambridge v-c vows to build trust with staff

October 3, 2003

Cambridge University's new vice-chancellor told dons this week that the institution must move forward, and committed herself to building trust between the academic staff and the central administration.

Speaking at her inauguration on Wednesday, Alison Richard promised to get involved in the "nuts and bolts" of administration.

She said she would not be deterred by external criticism of the way the university was run, adding: "I anticipate being exasperated at times, but throwing one's hands in the air is surely the wrong thing to do."

Professor Richard joins the university at a turbulent time, when politics - both internal and external - are piling on the pressure for change.

She told The THES : "I couldn't have joined at a more exciting time. The opportunities are there for us to seize. I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe that. The issues are self evident. It's important to keep firmly focused on moving forward to resolve them and to do so in the context of the values of this institution. But some of the solutions will be radical."

As a Cambridge University undergraduate in the 1960s, Professor Richard leapt on to the roof of prime minster Harold Wilson's car during a Vietnam war protest, shouting: "Out! Out!" She gave up only when a policeman forcibly deposited her on the pavement.

The former second in command at Yale University spent most of her career as an anthropologist in the US, studying Madagascan primates. Returning this week to her alma mater, Professor Richard set out her stall for her seven years in office. As only the second appointed full-time vice-chancellor (previously the role rotated among the college heads), she downplayed the fact that she is the first vice-chancellor to speak at her installation ceremony. She said she had not considered doing otherwise.

Although she said she would be persevering with reform of the governance of Cambridge, she insisted this had to be done in agreement with members of the academic governing body Regent House.

Chancellor Gordon Brown is believed to have put pressure on the university to modernise and become a more "businesslike" institution. Earlier this year, a package of proposals drafted by former vice-chancellor Sir Alec Broers and his team to reform Cambridge's governance system were voted down by academics. These included changes to the scope of the vice-chancellor's role, which would award the incumbent greater authorities.

Professor Richard said she had difficulty with the concept of modernisation. "If it means becoming a monolithic, hierarchical structure, if it means trying to impose on Cambridge, then it won't work. It would lose the value of the institution.

"It's a question of trust. But there are many major areas of policy where it would be unthinkable and wrong not to have involvement and leadership from the academic staff."

Academics did approve increasing the number of pro vice-chancellors from two to five, a move strongly welcomed by Professor Richard, who is used to the slick central administration of the US system. Defining their roles and making appointments are her first priorities, as she believes they will be key to building trust between central administration and Regent House.

"We need to have a team that is respected by members of the academic community. Part of the problem is that there aren't enough people on the ground in administration to carry out the role of communication.

"Trust has to be earned, but it also has to be given. I believe there is some level of mistrust inherent between central administration and staff in any great university - a healthy suspicion. But there is a threshold where it is difficult to get things done.

"I am increasingly in awe of what Alec Broers accomplished with such a thin group of senior leadership around him."

She said she was keen to spend time meeting people inside and outside the university and this would require sharing responsibilities previously loaded solely on to the vice-chancellor Professor Richard said the funding crisis in the university sector was a key concern and she was not sure tuition fees were the answer. She said that the government had recognised the value of excellence in universities and of having a small number that are national assets. But she said these institutions were underfunded and the cost of supporting them had to be met.

Professor Richard said that undergraduate education at the university was her key focus, and she outlined a commitment to Cambridge and other universities being "social escalators". If tuition fees jeopardised this mission, she explained, she could not agree to the university charging students.

"I passionately endorse the view that universities are expensive, underfunded and need a new revenue stream. Cambridge has one of the strongest bursary systems in the country, worth £4 million, but it is not a comprehensive system yet. If we can't see our way to doing that, then I would have to think again."

Another proposal in the white paper was to encourage universities to develop their endowments. But again Professor Richard preached caution.

"We need to build back the culture of philanthropy that has supported Cambridge for hundreds of years. But even in the wealthiest universities in the US, endowment funding accounts for only 30 per cent of their operating budget. It is not a magic bullet."

Professor Richard said she was not daunted by the university's deficit, which grew to more than Pounds 8 million this year. When she became provost of Yale in 1992, it had a $20 million deficit. So although the Cambridge situation was "serious". She added: "On a half-billion pound operating budget it's not a disaster. I've seen a deficit or two in my time. I'm much less concerned about that gap than about the larger issue of funding of the enterprise," she said.

A much greater risk to the university was the declining proportion of undergraduates who go on to do PhDs and become academics. She vowed to make sure that academics and administrative staff were properly compensated. She added: "You don't go into academia to become rich, but you shouldn't have to take a vow of poverty either."

Professor Richard warned that she must not be seen as a knight in shining armour. "Cambridge has been around for a long time. It will continue. There are things we have to work on and my goal is to spend the next seven years working and making a difference."

Anyway, she joked, she no longer rode, following a horseriding accident earlier this year.

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